Is a hard drive necessary?

The first time I built a PC I wanted the top graphics card, the problem was I only had a limited budget so I started to wonder where I could cut corners in order to get the GPU I desired. The first thing I looked at was the hard drive. The thought occurred to me ‘is a hard drive really necessary to run a PC?’ turns out it kind of is…

A computer requires some form of storage media to operate. This doesn’t have to necessarily be a hard drive, it could be an SSD, thumb drive, or SD card, really any form of storage media so long as it is readable/writable.  

Let’s imagine for some reason you want to run a PC without a hard drive, in this article we will explore what is possible, the limitations and how it can be done.

What does a hard drive do?

A hard drive is designed to store data in a readable and writable format for computer systems to be able to access and utilize that data when required.

Although the name hard drive has become ubiquitous across all types of storage media it is actually a specific type of storage media known as an HDD. This stands for Hard Disk Drive. HDDs are a progression from floppy disks, and the name refers to the fact that the disks are hard i.e. not floppy, and the fact they drive themselves in an all-in-one unit unlike CDs and Floppy Disks for example that requires a separate floppy drive or CD drive.

It’s the fact that HDD’s can do this that makes them so suitable for becoming component drives in computers as they offer greater capacity without the need to preload disks that you would then have to swap out. Over the years the HDD has been overtaken in its functionality by SSD (Solid State Drives). SSDs have no moving parts and store data in a completely different way that enables them to run a lot faster in a smaller form factor.

That said all Storage media has the same function and that is to read and write data to a storage medium. It’s really that simple. From SD cards to SSDs, they all just store data.

Why does a computer need a hard drive?

Computers need to store data somewhere in order to operate. As computers advance so too does the type of data and the speed at which it needs it. Computers run operating systems like Windows, macOS, or Linux to create a user interface for programs to run on and for us to interact with. These operating systems require a lot of code in different formats in order to operate and these files have to be stored somewhere for the computer to load them when you power it on or boot up.

Hard drives are the most price and speed-effective way to offer a large quantity of file storage for operating systems to load from and then utilize. But by definition, a computer doesn’t need an HDD it just needs some storage media where the OS is stored, ideally with some spare room for user-generated data.

The Raspberry pi is a great example of a computer that doesn’t need a hard drive. You can run a complete OS from a microSD card. If you are looking to learn more about computing then you cannot go wrong with one of these machines. They’re cheap and a lot of fun and the projects you can make with them are endless!

How can I run a computer without a hard drive?

While a hard drive isn’t a prerequisite for running a computer some form of storage media is. If you want or need to run a computer without a hard drive for any reason then you will need an OS image on some form of storage media.

Let’s say you have the windows image on a thumb drive. You simply start your computer and hit the key that prompts the bios menu. From there you should be able to select the thumb drive as the boot drive and you can load up the operating system from there. You’ll be limited in what you can achieve with this if there is no larger capacity storage media to utilize but it will get you up and running in a pinch.

Which is the best type of hard drive for running a computer?

There are two solutions for running a stable operating system, an HDD or an SSD. My recommendation is to use both. I use an SSD for my boot drive and operating system and an HDD for media storage like my docs, images, films etc..

SSDs work as fast as RAM removing the bottleneck for load times that HDDs have. Once up and running accessing your media files from an HDD doesn’t create so much of a bottleneck that you’ll notice it.

Much will depend on what capabilities your motherboard has in terms of getting the most out of this combination. If you check your model number with your manufacturer you should be able to get the specifications for what options your computer has to offer.

If you have an M.2 slot this is by far the best type of drive to run an operating system from as it clears up SATA ports for storage and is an extremely fast port for running your OS from as it is connected directly to the motherboard.

Top M.2 SSDs for under $100.

Failing that then prioritize a good capacity SSD for your startup disk, you can get a lot done with 60GB but I would highly recommend opting for something closer to 500GB or more given the price point that continues to decrease.

Top SATA SSDs for under $100.

If you have another SATA port, get yourself a high-capacity HDD, at least 1TB, 2TB if you can afford it, but be advised drives larger in a larger capacity than that tend to use SMR which can slow things down.

Top SATA HDDs for under $100.

If you don’t have another SATA port you can consider a USB 3.0 External drive or USB-C if you have the interface.

Top External Hard Drives.

There are plenty of options and although a hard drive isn’t necessarily necessary in a computer it sure does make things run a whole lot better!

And remember! Back up any storage media you do have!